In Defense of Vague Budgeting

A blog about business and economics.
March 14 2013 12:07 PM

Doing What A Budget Ought To Do

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WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 20: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (2nd-L) speaks while flanked by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) (L), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (2nd-R), and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) during a news conference on Capitol Hill December 20, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The budget Senate Democrats released yesterday is definitely more moderate and less ideologically ambitious than its Republican counterpart. But I've also heard it characterized as "vague", which I think is mistaken if it's meant as a criticism. What it is, it seems to me, is appropriately limited in the scope of what it considers.

Paul Ryan's budget sometimes comes in for hits as being vague in certain respects, but I think the right criticism is just that it's unbalanced. On taxes, for example, the Murray budget calls for $975 in higher taxes from business and the wealthy envisioned as coming from loophole-closing rather than higher rates. It doesn't specify exactly how to do that because that's the job of a different committee. But it picks a quantitatively plausible target. The same on savings from provider payments to Medicare and Medicaid. Others have identified sets of possible savings to these programs that are higher in value than what the budget calls for, so the budget framework is a realistic and responsible one. What Ryan does on taxes is call for specific rate cuts and then just assert that trillions in lost revenue can be made up with loophole closing. That's a kind of dirty pool where he wants to claim credit for the free ice cream while dodging the responsibility for the middle class tax hikes that are logically entailed by the plan.

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Several years of basically apocalyptic budget politics have, I think, tended to distract us from what a budget is for. The idea is to add up all your various goals—in this case no tax hikes on the middle class, no big cuts in services to the poor and the middle class, targeted extra investments in infrastructure and family policy—and show a way to make them mathematically workable. The budget has ample detail to show you that this vision is, in fact, mathematically workable. In a functional congress, you'd pass something like this and then various committees would delve into the various details.

Ryan's budget not only expresses different values—an overwhelming concern for low taxes on the rich above all else—it reflects a whole different view of what congress is for. Since America doesn't have a shadow cabinet, opposition parties often find it difficult to articulate coherent messages. From 2010 forward, Ryan has effectively used his budget document as a useful all-purpose summary of the conservative vision for America. So he not only parcels out the program cuts needed to make his tax policy work, he repeals the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill and puts forward a very controversial idea to totally remake Medicare. That's been helpful to his career personally, and helpful to journalists who now have a convenient summary document of the entire GOP wish list, but it's very hard to imagine actually governing the country on that basis.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.